US election conspiracies find fertile ground in conferences

Omaha, Neb. (AP) — On a quiet Saturday in an Omaha hotel, about 50 people gathered in a ballroom to learn about elections.

The subject wasn’t voter registration drives or poll worker volunteer training. Instead, they paid $25 each to listen to panelists lay out conspiracy theories about voting machines and rigged election results. In language that sometimes leaned into violent imagery, some panelists called on those attending to join what they framed as a battle between good and evil.

Among those in the audience was Melissa Sauder, who drove nearly 350 miles from the small western Nebraska town of Grant with her 13-year-old daughter. After years of combing internet sites, listening to podcasts and reading conservative media reports, Sauder wanted to learn more about what she believes are serious problems with the integrity of U.S. elections.

She can’t shake the belief that voting machines are being manipulated even in her home county, where then-President Donald Trump won 85% of the vote in 2020.

“I just don’t know the truth because it’s not open and apparent, and it’s not transparent to us,” said Sauder, 38. “We are trusting people who are trusting the wrong people.”

It’s a sentiment now shared by millions of people in the United States after relentless attacks on the outcome of the 2020 presidential election by Trump and his allies. Nearly two years after that election, no evidence has emerged to suggest widespread fraud or manipulation while reviews in state after state have upheld the results showing President Joe Biden won.

Even so, the attacks and falsehoods have made an impact: An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll from 2021 found that about two-thirds of Republicans say they do not think Biden was legitimately elected.

Events like the one held Aug. 27 in Nebraska’s largest city are one reason why.

Billed as the Nebraska Election Integrity Forum, the conference featured some of the nation’s most prominent figures pushing conspiracy theories that the last election was stolen from Trump through widespread fraud or manipulation of voting machines. It was just one of dozens of similar events that have been held around the country for the better part of a year.

Over eight hours with only a brief lunch break, attendees were deluged with election conspiracies, complete with charts and slide shows. Speakers talked about tampering of voting machines or the systems that store voter rolls, ballot-box stuffing and massive numbers of votes cast by dead people and non-U.S. citizens — all theories that have been debunked.

There is no evidence of widespread fraud or tampering with election equipment that could have affected the outcome of the 2020 election, in which Biden won both the popular vote — by more than 7 million nationwide — and the Electoral College count. Numerous official reviews and audits in the six battleground states where Trump challenged his loss have upheld the validity of the results. Judges, including some appointed by Trump, dismissed numerous lawsuits making various claims of fraud and wrongdoing.

All that was ignored as speaker after speaker told attendees that machines are rigged and elections are stolen. One of the event’s headliners was Patrick Byrne, the former CEO of Overstock.com, who said he has spent some $20 million of his own money since 2020 trying to prove that voting machines were manipulated in that election and remain susceptible to tampering.

That any technology is vulnerable, including voting machines, is not in dispute. State and local election officials throughout the U.S. have been focused on improving their security defenses with help from the federal government.

But Byrne and some of the other speakers said they believe government has been corrupted and can’t be trusted. In his remarks, he complained about those who say fraud did not occur in 2020 and journalists who report that, labeling them “election fraud deniers.”

Another main speaker at the Omaha event was Douglas Frank, an Ohio math and science educator who has been traveling the country engaging with community groups and meeting with local election officials offering to examine and analyze their voting systems.

He had harsh words for some of those who oversee elections at the state level.

“I like to tell people that we have evil secretaries of states,” Frank said. “We have a few of those in our country, and it’s sort of like World War II — when the war’s over, we need to have Nuremberg trials and we need to have firing squads, OK? I’m looking forward to the trials, OK?”

The crowd applauded.

State and local election officials have faced a barrage of harassment and death threats since the 2020 election. That has led some to quit or retire, in some places raising worries that their replacements may seek to meddle in elections or tamper with voting systems.

Trey Grayson, a former Republican secretary of state in Kentucky who is critical of those spreading conspiracy theories, said previous election-year attacks were focused on candidates or political parties, but now are targeted at election administration.

“There are a lot of really bad actors here that are trying to undermine confidence in a system. It is dangerous,” he said.

The Omaha conference was sponsored by American Citizens & Candidates Forum for Election Integrity, which has hosted more than a dozen such gatherings since the 2020 election.

The speakers urged those in attendance to take action. That includes getting to know their local election officials and local sheriff, and to volunteer to be poll watchers for the November general election with the goal of reporting any activity they think could be fraudulent.

Omaha resident Kathy Austin said she recently submitted her name to serve as a poll worker, but has not heard back. She is convinced the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.

“I had not really been involved in politics before the 2020 election,” said Austin, 75. That began to change after she saw posts making claims of election fraud on social media.

“Then I talked to different people,” she said. “And the more I learned, the more it became clear there is a problem.”

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Cassidy reported from Atlanta.

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